Arthritis is extremely common in domestic dogs. One of the more common forms of arthritis, called osteoarthritis (OA) or degenerative joint disease (DJD), reportedly affects about one out of every five dogs at some point during their lifetime. Fortunately, arthritis is not particularly difficult to diagnose. In most cases, owners bring their aging dogs to a veterinarian because they have noticed that they are limping, reluctant to stand up and just generally starting to slow down. The doctor will ask the owner questions about the dog’s general health, when its current symptoms started and whether they have waxed and waned, stayed about the same or steadily gotten worse. After taking a thorough history, the veterinarian will carefully examine the dog, paying particular attention to its limbs, back and joints. She will be looking for swelling, heat and signs of discomfort. A complete physical examination will help to localize the site of the dog’s joint pain. Usually, the dog’s history, presenting symptoms and physical examination results will point to a tentative diagnosis of arthritis.
After the history and physical examination are completed, the typical initial data base for aging canine patients includes taking blood and urine samples and submitting them to a laboratory for blood work and a urinalysis. These routine tests usually don’t provide much diagnostic information about the overall condition of dogs with arthritis, or about the causes of their discomfort. However, they can identify inflammation and infection and provide valuable information about the dog’s geriatric baseline health. Radiographs, commonly called X-rays, are a very effective tool for identifying and assessing arthritis; they can show changes in the joint capsules, soft tissue thickening, narrowing of joint spaces, joint effusion (fluid build-up), cartilage changes, bone changes, mineralization of soft tissues, intra-articular calcified bodies (osteophytes) and other physical changes that are known to be associated with arthritis. Unfortunately, the degree of abnormalities that a veterinarian can see on radiographs does not necessarily correlate to the severity of the dog’s clinical disease or to how poorly it feels. Another procedure, called bone nuclear scintigraphy, can help the veterinarian localize the site(s) of degenerative joint disease. Sampling and analysis of the synovial fluid, which is the fluid lining and lubricating the inside of the joint capsule, can help her assess the degree of inflammation and whether any joints are infected. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) are also available in specialized referral clinics and veterinary teaching hospitals to visualize joint incongruity, physical cartilage changes and the overall extent of the dog’s arthritis.
Arthritis in dogs is almost always progressive and irreversible. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to manage this condition and help most affected dogs maintain a good quality of life.